The biggest story about the 2020 season for the Dallas Cowboys is rather evident. The roster was just decimated by injuries. They now will finish with a losing record in Mike McCarthy’s debut season. There is still a very slim chance they could sneak into the playoffs, but you shouldn’t bet any money on that. As a result, we have seen so many players who were supposed to be backups getting significant playing time. It has been particularly pronounced on offense, but also has impacted the defensive side of the ball. It is a dark cloud that has at times created real gloom.
But there is a silver lining. All those backups have gained irreplaceable experience. It has led to some much needed growth for many, and some surprising discoveries. Here are some that could be important in 2021.
The big surprise at tight end
The anticipation was that Blake Jarwin was going to play a big role in the offense, but he was lost for the season in the first game. That meant that the team had to thrust Dalton Schultz into the starting role. It could have been rough, but instead, Schultz had a very solid season as the new starter. He has 53 catches for 524 yards and four TDs, while catching 70.7% of the passes thrown to him. The staff has to be thrilled at how well he took Jarwin’s place. He has been a very reliable possession extender. All that he did not give the Cowboys was Jarwin’s deep threat ability.
What the team now has, assuming Jarwin is healthy next year, is a very good one-two punch at TE. Further, they can use two tight end sets that are not just for running the ball. By putting Jawrin and Schultz both in patterns, they can greatly complicate things for defenses next year. Many teams don’t have two defensive backs that can cover tight ends well, meaning that often one or even both will have a linebacker on them. Schultz had an outstanding training camp, and carried it over to the regular season.
Offensive line depth
The Cowboys have two All-Pro offensive linemen in Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. La’el Collins was thought to be on a trajectory to join them soon. All are now on injured reserve. That meant they had to throw a bunch of backups, mostly very inexperienced, out there.
It took some time and struggles, but Brandon Knight, Connor McGovern, and Terence Steele now give them a decent line. They still are not in any way challenging those injured starters for their jobs next year. But clearly depth is a necessity, and that trio now offers the team some very solid backups with lots of game experience, something that many teams just don’t have. Steele in particular has shown real improvement since his first few starts. All are on low-cost rookie deals, which could be very important in finding cap space next year. Not having to go shopping for veteran free agents to provide depth is a very good thing.
Finding out just what they have in Tony Pollard
With Ezekiel Elliott missing the first game of his career because of injury (he has of course been suspended before), the Cowboys had to call on Tony Pollard to start. He has filled a limited role as a change of pace back in the past. While he certainly flashed at times, there was a legitimate question about how he would fare in the lead role.
All he did was have the best game of his career, with two rushing touchdowns and some very good receptions as well. With Elliott still limited in practice, Pollard will likely have to carry more of the load even if Elliott is deemed able to play against the Philadelphia Eagles. Based on how he did last week, that is not a bad thing, and it argues strongly for getting him more involved next season even if Elliott is 100%.
Donovan Wilson finally gets his chance
Many have been wanting the safety to get on the field more. It finally happened after the Cowboys coaching staff finally inserted him as a starter. Last week, all he did was get an interception, another pass defended, and eight tackles. He’s another young player on his rookie deal, and should play a big role in ‘21.
His best trait for the team may be his ball-hawking skills, displayed on that pick. The Cowboys have struggled to get takeaways before the sudden explosion the past two weeks, and Wilson certainly can help with that.
Bolstering the interior of the defensive line
With the injury to Trysten Hill, who was coming on strong, the absolute failure of Dontari Poe, and now an injury that looks to also sideline Antwaun Woods this week, the defense needs Neville Gallimore to step up. That is exactly what he has done in recent games, and he seems to be getting noticeably better each week. Along with CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, and Tyler Biadasz, Gallimore is making the 2020 draft class look like a real success for Dallas. The defensive tackles still are having issues, especially in the run game, but if Gallimore had not been available, they would be in real trouble.
A find on special teams
With Chris Jones joining the long, long list of players on IR, the Cowboys had to turn to unheralded Hunter Niswander, whose only experience was in the XFL before they shut down. The rookie has averaged 47.4 yards a punt in his six games, which is much better than Jones’ 42.6 before he was lost for the year.
Jones was experiencing a dropoff in his performance before this season, and now the Cowboys have another cheap option if they should chose to move on. We often overlook the punting game, but Niswander is making a significant contribution to the team.
Finally, a potential backup QB
Garrett Gilbert only had one start while Andy Dalton was out, but he looked pretty good while doing it. He certainly was a marked improvement over rookie Ben DiNucci the previous week. With Dalton almost certain to move on in free agency, Gilbert should get a long, hard look next year as the new backup QB. It’s a position we never want to see have a big impact, but we found out this year just how important it can be.
None of this is much comfort for how this season cratered, even as the team is showing some signs of life lately. But all of these are potential pieces to build next year’s roster. And all will be much better because they were forced onto the field by injuries.